Taking Pan-Africanism to the People

16 December 2005 at 03:29 | 733 views

At a meeting of African heads of state in Nigeria recently, the thorny issue of African unity was debated. While the leaders busied themselves with discussing a union of states, Tajudeen Abdul Raheem writes that what unity should really be about is a unity of people. Pan Africanism, he writes, needs to leave the conferences and executive mansions and become a part of the lives of ordinary people.

By Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem

On November 12th and 13th at the Banquet Hall of Nigeria’s State House (more popularly known as Aso Rock), President Olusegun Obasanjo, in his capacity as the chair of the African Union, hosted a conference on ‘Africa and the Challenges of the Global Order: Desirability of the Union Government’.

Five heads of state and government including President Thabo Mbeki (South Africa), John Kufour (Ghana), Abdulaye Wade (Senegal), Prime minister Meles Zenawi (Ethiopia) and President Boutefleka (Algeria) - represented by his prime minister - along with several foreign ministers and ambassadors were present.

A number of civil society activists, academics, international policy makers including Mahmood Mamdani (Columbia University), Adebayo Olukoshi (CODESRIA), Wangari Mathai (President of ECOSOCC), Gertrude Mongela (speaker of the Pan African Parliament), Ezra Mbogori (Mwengo) and others were also present to dialogue with the leaders on the best means of proceeding with the agenda of unity.

The meeting was a direct result of the directive given by the Shirte Summit in July based on the resolution put forward by the Libyan leader, Muammar Al Gaddafi demanding that a Union of African states be formed as a further step in advancing the Pan-Africanist idea. Libya is anxious that in spite of recent progress in the Union the demands and pressures of globalization are such that only a faster march to Unity will prevent Africa from being re-colonised.

As in 1999 not many African leaders were too enthusiastic about Libya ’s proposals in July. However, as has become the practice, whatever Libya pushes it has enough material and diplomatic clout in the Union for it not to be ignored. The strategy of other powerhouses in the AU - especially Nigeria and South Africa - has always been how to contain Libya’s militancy. The matter was thrown at a High Level Panel headed by President Obasanjo along with Zenawi, Mbeki, Wade, Boutefleka, Museveni and Kufour. This Panel is due to submit its report to the next summit in Khartoum in January 2006.

In Abuja the Libyans - represented by their minister for Africa Ali Treiki (called by many "The Tricky man’ for his long term survival of many sharp knives in the corridors of power) - put more flesh to their proposals in terms of a time table beginning in 2006 with the removal of tariffs and visas, the establishment of a central bank, and the formation of one army all of which would lead to the creation of a Union of African States in 2009.

Libya obviously wants a United Africa as a present for the 40th anniversary of the Al Fatah revolution! These are no doubt very revolutionary proposals given the slow take off of all the institutions of the new Union. Caution will dictate that we work on making existing structures work before taking another leap forward.

In a rare display of executive candor and public engagement the leaders present did not hide their disagreement with Libya’s proposals. Thabo Mbeki led the charge, raising doubts about his ability to persuade reluctant South Africans to surrender sovereignty to an entity outside the country that they did not vote for. He expressed pessimism about common tariffs, drawing his conclusion from the slow progress of common tariffs and the customs union of SADC countries.

Zenawi argued that the proposals were full of old rhetoric without adequate research and analysis. He asked if Africa’s underdevelopment is the result of lacking a union government or if a union government will make Africa develop. Obasanjo drew attention to the ECOWAS region which made great progress in the area of free movement but had not proceeded to other levels of integration.

Wade suggested that the integration of Africa is impeded by dependence on aid and the collective loses that Africa suffers from the export of its precious raw materials and mineral resources like oil, gold, diamond, etc. He caused some exchange of executive banter between him and his host when he asked for the right to share in Nigeria’s fuel resources. Obasanjo retorted that he could not be giving Senegal cheap oil while it uses foreign exchange to buy imported rice which he is trying to dissuade Nigerians from eating.

The concerns raised by the leaders and others are genuine but I believe they are agonising instead of organising. I do not believe that Africans anywhere on this continent or in the Diaspora will not vote overwhelmingly for visa-free freedom of movement across Africa. The scandalous situation that degrades and humiliates us at the moment needs to be addressed immediately. How can an American, Canadian or Australian and virtually all Europeans have easier access to our countries while we treat fellow African as ’aliens’? Despite all the sensitivities and reactionary politics surrounding citizenship across Africa would it not be easier to recognise all Africans as Africans with full citizenship rights, wherever they may be in Africa? Mamdani, combining both personal experience and professional interest did not allow Wade’s executive fiat to stop him from completing his presentation on this issue. Drawing from his book, ‘Citizens and Subjects’ Mamdani showed how the citizenship laws of today are a carry over of colonial divide and rule and a pluralism of legal regimes that made Africans into tribes subjected to native or customary laws. That pluralism has made it difficult for many African countries to create political communities with a sense of shared future.

Olukoshi took on the argument of ECOWAS not making progress since it introduced freedom of moment. Freedom of movement alone would not lead to integration if it was not accompanied by integrative infrastructure through transport, communication, education, commerce and trade, etc.

It is clear that we are back to the debates of the 1960s about how far and fast we should proceed to unity. The answer that our painful history teaches us is that slow progress has lead us to the slaughter house of neo-colonialism and impoverishment in the midst of abundant human and material resources. We have no choice but to move faster because the rest of the world will not wait for us.

It is now widely recognised that Pan Africanism needs to leave the confines of conferences and executive mansions of our leaders and become part and parcel of all our lives building from the down-up. A number of issues are clear. One, the heads of state want a union of states while what we need is a union of peoples. If people are at the centre of the agenda many of the contradictions and anxieties the leaders are obsessed with can be confronted together instead of dealing with them individually. Two, some states are more willing than others. And it may be necessary that instead of constantly waiting for everyone to come on board those who are ready should go ahead. Three, the Libyans have to learn how to be thorough and strategic in mobilising both leaders and civil society instead of wasting enormous resources as sweeteners to reluctant heads of state. The biggest obstacle to their good proposals is the way they do things rather than what they are putting forward. The crucial stage we are now at requires a broader alliance owned and led by our peoples to bring the frontiers down and release our energies for creative union that serves the people.

Source: Pambazuka News

Photo: President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa

Dr Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem is General-Secretary of the Pan African Movement, Kampala (Uganda) and Co-Director of Justice Africa